Janet Jackson’s ‘Janet.’ Turns 20

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Janet Jackson re-declared her independence 20 years ago. Released on May 18 of 1993, her fifth studio album and first for Virgin Records was titled simply janet. It was punctuation as career statement, as she bucked the trend of her prior projects and left her family’s behemoth of a surname deliberately out of the title. This symbolic move to be accepted on individual artistic terms was complimented by a set of 14 R&B songs and mood-setting interludes that expressed her own confident views on sex and sensuality, and of balancing the confident with the coy. Production and songwriting assistance came courtesy of the hit-making Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis team, but this was Jackson’s moment of assertion.

The legacy of janet. has grown steadily over the last few years, especially after Kendrick Lamar scored a hit when producer Scoop DeVille hooked up a sample from Miss Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” for the Compton kid’s “Poetic Justice” single. So we checked in Scoop and a wave of current artists who’ve either paid tribute to the album (as with How To Dress Well’s Tom Krell covering “Again” during live shows) or whose appreciation of the record’s organic sensuality has seeped over into their own songwriting (see: modern soul men Jesse Boykins III, Bilal and Raheem DeVaughn). We also talked to alt-leaning figures like U.K. warbler Alice Russell and musical renaissance man Dev Hynes. Here’s how they reminisce over janet.

Check out MTV Style’s tribute to Jackson’s iconic fashion.

1. First Time, First Place
janet. was released back in 1993, when many of its future fans were still in their formative musical stages. Here are those first listen memories.

Dev Hynes: I first heard that record from MTV. I remember being struck by the videos, especially around that time as MTV and video were kinda like in full force so the songs and the videos to me at that point are one and the same. My sister had the album the week of release and I guess I was like eight years old. I looked up to my sister so everything that she would listen to religiously, I would also listen to religiously. We’d sit and listen and dance and pretend to make up dance routines and things like that — the routines were definitely Jackson influenced! But that album reminds me of so much; there’s so many things around that time and it was like a soundtrack. I really associated it with the 1994 World Cup in the USA and my mum letting me stay up to watch some of the games. It was definitely the first Janet album that I can recall hearing and begin aware that it was happening at the time. Then it was later on that I got into the earlier records. It’s funny ’cause it’s almost my love for the album is almost detached from my Janet Jackson love in a weird way just because of how young I was when I first heard that music.

Tom Krell: The first time, I was about nine years old. I was in the car, like my mom was playing it in the car. At the time I was mostly listening to stuff on KISS 107.5 in Denver, so rap and R&B. I remember songs like “Again” and “Any Time, Any Place.”

Scoop DeVille: I was a young kid and my mom owned the record and we used to listen to it a lot. It was innovative and with her being part of a family that had such a big legacy, everything she did was top notch. My mom was a huge Janet fan from Control and Rhythm Nation 1814 — and she was also listening to a lot of Teena Marie and Michael Jackson then — so I grew up on it. It’s second nature for me.

Jesse Boykins III: The first time I heard janet. was my freshman year at college; one of my friend’s roommates was playing it. We were freshmen, so we were 17 and it was the first time girls were outside of their parents’ house and got a chance to be completely open with themselves and that Janet album actually symbolized that for a lot of young girls, like to be open sexually and sensually and be able to date and experiment when all these things went down around that time. For a lot of women I knew, that was true. A lot of times women that I’d hang out with would put me onto a lot of different records and this was one of them.

Bilal: I think I was over at a girlfriend’s house. I had a girlfriend who was really into Janet Jackson — I think all girls were really into Janet Jackson though! I remember just the craftsmanship on those songs, like the range and the arrangements. I really felt like the production on that album was on a whole other level as soon as I heard it.

Raheem DeVaughn: Those records, you hear them and it takes you back to high school prom and it takes you back to the first mixtape you made for a girl and it takes you back to your first kiss. It’s just fond memories of love for me.

Alice Russell: Basically, before hearing the album I remember the image of her boobs! I remember all the billboards in the area — I know in some places it wasn’t allowed — so I remember the image before hearing the album, if you know what I mean.

2. Go On Miss Janet
The cover to janet. was a soft and subtle (but still slightly coquettish) close-up headshot of janet. Later that year, a full-length version of photographer Patrick Dermarchelier’s image was used as a cover shot for an issue of Rolling Stone — an uncut take which revealed Janet was actually topless, with the hands of her then-husband, Rene Elizondo Jr., covering her breasts. Despite not being an official part of the album, it’s a provocative image that has endured as janet.‘s visual calling card — and when married to the actual album art it sets up the range of sexuality the singer expressed across the record.

Raheem DeVaughn: Even as a youngster, the image was very sexy. It caught my eye!

Dev Hynes: Yeah, was Jermaine Dupri behind her with his hands? I think I read that.

Janet Jackson Rolling Stone Cover

Alice Russell: As a woman, I didn’t relate to the cover! Maybe as an adult I may have, but as a teenager I just thought it was a pretty image. I mean, I wasn’t gonna be getting my boobs out on the cover! But I don’t find things like that naughty at all. So I thought it was a brilliant cover. All the other [covers] she was like covered in dreads, so you could see her going in a different way, in a different light.

Tom Krell: The actual cover is just her face. It’s interesting, ’cause I remember with Rhythm Nation Janet, it was the first time my mom sat me down and was like, “Hey, women are badass, don’t fuck around and be a bad man.” I just remember thinking that she was smart with this one.

Bilal: The thing about Janet was just her sex appeal and her style at that time. I think the album caught my ear as a boy even though I wasn’t into the whole stereotype of Janet as a Jackson. On this album it was those songs that stood out to my ear more than the pictures.

Dev Hynes: I’ve always loved the tenor of the album and how it’s still groove based like earlier stuff but I think there’s something warm there; it’s a much warmer sounding Janet, especially in regard to Rhythm Nation which was so tough and brutal and angry. With this one, I love the tone and the warmness of it. There’s real growth in the janet. album, for her, and it feels natural. Obviously Control is amazing but there’s something about the janet. album that is completely unforced and natural — you feel it’s really her.

Jesse Boykins III: For a woman to be expressing those things, it was cool. It’s like she’s a lady but she’s also a human being and she has urges and she acknowledges these things and she’s not gonna act like they don’t exist. She was sensual and seductive and at the same time classy when it needed to be, you know?

Raheem DeVaughn: The album was her standing out. If you look at Janet then, you didn’t look at her as Michael Jackson‘s little sister any more — you looked at her as Janet, you know? She was a strong, black woman; young, classy but provocative.

Jesse Boykins III: She was being brave enough to say whatever she wanted to say and not being afraid of what anyone might have to say about it after the fact. She sat down with the writers and came up with these concepts that were not necessarily talked about a lot and not necessarily looked on as things to talk about in a song format at the time — and especially not from a pop artist who was already so iconic based on her family name. She was being fearless.

3. Janet.‘s Three Key Songs
Janet.‘s first official single was “That’s The Way Love Goes,” a hazy, nostalgia-dipped summer-of-’93 anthem that hit the number one spot on the Billboard charts. It was followed by the super-ballad “Again,” the new jack swing-tinged trio of “If,” “You Want This” and “Because Of Love,” and the sultry slow jam “Any Time, Any Place.” Three of them have endured as the album’s signature songs.

Tom Krell: I’ve always just loved super sentimental music so obviously “Again” and “Because Of Love” is such an amazing song, and “Any Time, Any Place” is so good. I didn’t like “That’s The Way Love Goes” ’cause it was a little too grown up for me, but I could always relate to “Again.” That song has been a big part of my life since 1993.

I really like music where the musical form and the musical choices reflect the emotional stuff that’s going on in the song. The way that song is so sensitive and afraid and then it builds to this triumphant moment and then it becomes so sensitive and guarded again, it’s a description of this feeling. It’s so curious at first with the music, and she’s singing about “I heard from a friend today and she said that you were in town.” It’s very curious and there’s this crescendo and she’s no longer afraid and guarded and she’s this open sensitivity where she sings that she’s falling in love again. Then the final moment is just unbelievably sweet.

Dev Hynes: “Again,” I love that song. I feel like it’s a memory thing for me more than just the actual song. It reminds me of being really young. That song was huge and it was everywhere.

Scoop DeVille: There’s a classic on there with “Any Time, Any Place.” That record is just amazing, so good.

Bilal: “Any Time, Any Place,” man, just the chord changes on there, the A and the B section, I felt like that was some new stuff that hadn’t happened before in R&B! Even when I met Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, I told them that. They was on another level, production-wise on that album. As a young kid and a musician, I stood up and was like, “Woah, that’s kinda ill. This is on a Janet Jackson album?”

Jesse Boykins III: “That’s The Way Love Goes,” of course. That song helped me realize how conceptual she was making this album, you know? Everyone raves about Michael Jackson of course and the Jackson Five, but that song really symbolized Janet being a great artist on her own to me.

Alice Russell: I’ll be honest, not the whole album hit me, but I loved “That’s The Way Love Goes” and I was really into the songs that mixed in like the new jack swing thing, and the melodies are kinda like Motown, you know? That song reminds me of being a teenager and lots of guys were into hip-hop and going to parties and hearing tracks like that and [Mary J Blige's] “Real Love” and remixes off the album. It reminds me of party time as a teenager.

4. The Minneapolis Hit Factory
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s Flyte Tyme studio in Minneapolis acted as the creative hub for recording janet. The production duo are credited with masterminding the tone of the album, which pulled off a canny fusion of the uptempo new jack swing styles of the day with a more traditional (and even adult contemporary) R&B songwriting base. They were assisted by regular studio spar Jellybean Johnson. For her part, Janet upgraded her role from being a vocal foil on prior albums to becoming wholly involved in the songwriting side of the project.

Raheem DeVaughn: This was Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis at the height of their career, just as songwriters. It’s timeless and iconic.

Scoop DeVille: They had a huge chemistry when they were creating those songs. The instrumentation and the vocals sounded so cool together; I think they had it down to a good science on how Janet should sound. Musical geniuses. A lot of people should go back to those records that were being created as it sounds, I’d say, even more futuristic than it did back then.

Bilal: They influenced all soul music. Their approach, that whole method of coming from Minneapolis, they have a certain approach, like even with Prince. They play blues a different way. They put a lot into their music, you know?

Jesse Boykins III: Jam and Lewis made a conceptually great record ’cause it had a lot of different styles in it. It had like the ’90s new jack swing feel to it, but it also had a little alternative vibe to it and it definitely had a pop vibe.

Dev Hynes: When it was released, I wasn’t really aware of Jam and Lewis. But that was definitely the start of the time period where I’d pretend I was listening to songs in detail, like I’d take songs off the radio and make little mixes and pretend I was dissecting them. And, you know, a couple of years ago I spent a good month listening to the album, kinda in an analytical way, and I feel like that album was a huge growing point in their production, in the progression of Jam and Lewis.

Tom Krell: I mean, I love the production of that record but for me it’s all about her voice. She could sing a bunch of a capellas into a smart phone and release it and I would download it and listen to it every day.

Alice Russell: I was really into my new jack swing, and the album was a sort of hip-hop and soul mix, so I knew Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis… and they had Jellybean Johnson. [Pauses.] They had really good names!

5. Poetic Justice and The Legacy
Two decades on from its original release date, janet. occupies a curious position in the Miss Jackson discography: It’s not as frequently heralded as the feistier Control and the polemical Rhythm Nation 1814, but in 2013 the album’s influence is more apparent, not least as a sample source for west coast wunderkind Kendrick Lamar’s “Poetic Justice” song. And don’t be surprised to see more janet. covers and samples popping up before the year’s out…

Tom Krell: I cover “Again” when I play live. There’s an easy answer and a complicated answer to why I chose that song. The complicated one is about the structure, which I think I’ve already talked about, and the easy one is that I just liked the sweetness of the song from a very young age. It was for the Pitchfork Music Festival, I wanted to do an amazing cover with an orchestra, and I just thought, “Oh, yeah, “Again” has to be it.” But it would be absolutely amazing to do a duet together. I’d love to build a track with her and maybe sing some harmonies but watch how she takes control of the track and see what I can learn from it. It would be a dream to sing some counterpoint movement with janet. It’s such a dream.

Dev Hynes: Her voice is so distinctive and I really love it when she’s in a high register, so if I could work with her I’d try and make something that’s warm in tone — probably similar to the janet. album, actually. I’d try and repress my Control and Rhythm Nation vibes until later in the session!

Scoop DeVille: I sampled “Any Time, Any Place” after I heard the record on the radio when I was in the car. It took a minute for me to figure out how to sample it ’cause I didn’t want to sample it like everyone else would, so I tried to live with the sample and kept messing around with it. I have an original version that’s different — the original was me trying to chop the sample and it wasn’t coming out the way I wanted it to. But I kept going back to it until I could master the sample. When I was making “Poetic Justice” I didn’t want to take away from the natural essence of the original record so I tried to build around it and let that be the base of the song.

Did Kendrick Lamar recognize it was a Janet song? Oh, yeah, ’cause we’re the same age so he was like, “This is crazy!” He was attached to the record when I played it. A lot of people were fighting over that record, from 50 Cent to other people, but at the time I thought it would be the right move to give it to a new artist and someone from that era who understands what that song is.

People have reacted to “Poetic Justice” in so many different ways — Busta Rhymes did a remix of the song with Q-Tip and they both have experiences with Janet with Busta shooting the video with her and Q-Tip being in Poetic Justice with 2Pac and janet. They got to share their experiences and got to talk about their past. It’s awesome to see that record be such a big movement. Now you see these girls with the braids like Janet in Poetic Justice and with the hashtags on Instagram you can see girls talking about the braids and Kendrick. It’s going full circle for janet. I even saw Janet in braids when the record came out! I don’t know if that’s her blessing us with knowing about the record, but anything related to “Any Time, Any Place” is always going to be a hit. [Pauses.] Actually, I have some [songs] that are still in the works that use Janet records. I’ve sampled many of her records, for sure!

Alice Russell: The last time I listened to the album in full was about four years ago. It was like going back in time. I have a lot of stuff like this on vinyl and I’m touring a lot so I don’t always get to dip back into it, but I was home a while back and I got into that and the first Missy Elliot album at the same time. If I had to do a cover from it I’d do “That’s The Way Love Goes.” You could do something quite different with that, put a nice synth melody on it.

Jesse Boykins III: I listened to janet. again two years ago. It’s one of her best pieces. It made a mark on what a women can express, and I don’t think she really cared how it was perceived by the mainstream media. That’s why we have the Rihannas and we have the Beyoncés and artists that are openly proud of being sexually powerful.

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